Phantom India (Louis Malle, 1969)

“It’s not about explaining or dominating the world but being a part of it.”

Plot Summary: French director Louis Malle’s documentary portrait of life in India circa 1968.


Frustrated with the French film industry, Malle decided to take a cameraman and a sound recorder to India where he spent the next four months filming “chance encounters” with people all over the subcontinent, and the result is this intermittently fascinating 7 part, 6 hour documentary with narration written and spoken by Malle himself. Many of these chance encounters produce memorable images: a mob pulling a giant ornamented chariot through the streets during a religious festival; a Hindu priest with countless rods and needles piercing his body, face and tongue; a yogi contorting himself into seemingly impossible positions. My favorite part of the documentary, to which Malle devotes most of part 2, occurs inside a religious dance school where two graceful female students perform a Hindu dance called a “Bharatanatyam” with remarkable beauty and precision. In addition to the many Hindus, however, Malle also encounters Muslims, Christians, Jews and communists, as well as countless peasants being exploited by capitalist landowners, an unfortunate legacy of British colonialism according to Malle, all of which attests to the staggering religious and sociopolitical complexity of Indian society. But it’s precisely this complexity that presents a problem for the documentary because the relatively short glimpses Malle offers into the lives of these groups, any one of which would need its own documentary to do it justice, necessarily seem somewhat superficial.

Despite this shortcoming, however, there’s no shortage of interesting encounters, including Malle’s interview with a young hippie who talks about the spiritual awakening he’s experienced in India and his rejection of the materialistic West, only to reverse himself shortly thereafter when a tummy ache prompts him to fly back home on mom and dad’s coin because he doesn’t trust Indian doctors. So much for attaining nirvana! It’s a humorous vignette but it also provides a clue to the film’s title, which alludes to the gulf between the Westerner’s idealized vision of a mystical India, where one might achieve spiritual oneness with the universe (and maybe even with The Beatles and Ravi Shankar too!), and the economic realities of poverty and hardship captured by Malle’s camera. Strangely, although Malle frequently acknowledges these economic realities, he also speaks at times as if he’s experienced a spiritual awakening himself, as the following quote suggests: “We may not understand these people but we’re connected to them, sharing their link with nature. Letting ourselves go in their presence we feel as if we’ve rediscovered something we’d lost. I’ve accepted another perspective of the world. It’s not about explaining or dominating the world but being a part of it, fitting into it”. One has to wonder, though, exactly what led Malle to such a spiritual epiphany. Was it the dude with the needles piercing his tongue? the bathers “purifying” themselves in the filthy Ganges River? the yogi who can put his feet behind his head? Sorry, but I saw nothing to inspire in me the sort of transcendent feelings Malle expresses, and though critics have praised his uniquely subjective take on the subject, this viewer would have preferred fewer of Malle’s subjective reflections and a lot more anthropological insight.

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